Downtown Station for CapMetro
Updated: Friday, 17 Apr 2009, 10:51 AM CDT
Published : Thursday, 16 Apr 2009, 3:10 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN/LBJ/CLASS) - Capital Metro, the public transit provider owned by the City of Austin, is in trouble.
And its future, as well as mass transportation issues in general, have become a major issue in the mayoral and city council races this election.
The system has invested millions of dollars in MetroRail, a new commuter rail line, only to indefinitely postpone its opening - placing the project well over one year behind schedule.
At the same time, the organization's cash reserves, essential for any organization to have in case of unforeseen costs and debts, have been drained to dangerously low levels that cover only two months of Capital Metro's operation costs.
The problems are prompting current and hopeful city leaders to demand reforms.
"We must ... seek answers to the many questions surrounding Capital Metro and judgment errors that have plagued the agency for some time now," City Councilman Mike Martinez told the Austin Chronicle in its March 27, 2009 edition.
The MetroRail project's last official opening date, March 30th of this year, was already one year behind schedule. In mid-March, Capital Metro indefinitely postponed the opening of the MetroRail line from Leander to Downtown Austin due to numerous operation and personnel problems found in preliminary inspections.
Shortly after Capital Metro announced the postponement of MetroRail, Veolia Transportation, the subcontractor who actually hires the engineers for the MetroRail commuter trains, was declared under investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration for safety issues. In a Capital Metro press release distributed shortly after, CapMetro called for Veolia to replace their safety director. Capital Metro also announced that staff will continue testing system enhancements in response to the problems found during inspections, and make a report to the community on May 15, 2009 on the status of the MetroRail project along with an action plan.
If that is not enough, serious financial problems are emerging. Capital Metro owes millions of dollars to the City of Austin but has drained its cash reserves because of the MetroRail and other expensive projects that have not repaid their costs.
Many say the future of Capital Metro is looking weaker than ever.
In his comments to the Chronicle, Councilman Martinez noted that Veolia was simply a "scapegoat" in the fiasco, and said: "Other folks are going to have to accept their responsibility as well. ... It really brings into question the competence of the organization."
In defense of Capital Metro, they do have a number of possible solutions to their ailments in the works.
First, Capital Metro recently solicited outside help on the MetroRail issues by bringing in experts from Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority that operates a successful commuter rail system in the Boston Metro Area.
And second, a timely bill introduced by State Senator Kirk
Watson, D-Austin, could revamp the agency's oversight board and
accountability. The bill would add designated spots on the Capital
Metro board for two members with management and financial expertise
and would also require more financial oversight meaning that if the
agency begins to use large amounts of cash reserves, the public
will know about it faster.
Katy Cummins is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs, specializing in Urban and State Affairs, with a focus on energy and transportation issues. She is part of the CLASS program at LBJ. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.